While the approximately 200 species of woodpeckers can be found over much of the planet, there are seven species in Florida, several of which might be seen in wooded areas of Leon County.
Our most common woodpecker is the red-bellied, which readily comes to feeders for sunflower seeds or peanuts. Our largest is the pileated, and is familiar for its red crest and noisy hammering. The downy woodpecker is the smallest we generally see, and is not much larger than a sparrow. They, too, readily come to backyard feeders for seeds and suet cakes.
Almost identical to the downy, the hairy woodpecker is a bit larger and is not as common. Our only brown woodpecker is the northern flicker, often seen on the ground, flicking aside leaf debris in search of ants. In steady decline is the red-headed woodpecker due to loss of habitat and competition for nesting sites from starlings. And finally, our rarest, and federally protected woodpecker is the red-cockaded.
All of these woodpecker species excavate nesting sites in trees. Some have definite tree preferences. For example, the endangered red-cockaded excavates its nesting cavity only in older living pine trees that are infected with red heart rot and located in relatively open areas. Most woodpeckers, however, create nest cavities in dead or decaying wood. Removal of dead or dying trees from forests, parks, and yards results in declining habit for woodpeckers in search of nesting sites.
Standing dead and dying trees called “snags” are important for cavity nesters. Snags may occur as a result of disease, lightning, fire, animal damage, too much shade, drought, root competition, or just old age. All trees are potential snags, but many are cut down without thought to their value as nest sites. Many snags can safely be left in place.
Different kinds of trees develop cavities at different ages, and woodpeckers use both hardwood and cone-bearing trees. The best snags for cavity-nesting birds are those with hard sapwood and decayed heartwood, making them hard on the outside and softer in the middle.
Woodpeckers are considered “primary cavity nesters” as they generally create new nesting holes each year. “Secondary cavity nesters” such as bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, wood ducks, owls, and squirrels are highly dependent on abandoned woodpecker nesting sites.
Snags can be incorporated into your landscape. Try to keep old and damaged trees when possible and when safe to do so. In urban areas, tall snags are best located away from high activity areas so they will not pose a safety hazard if they fall.
Trees that lean away or are downhill from houses and other structures may present little or no risk. You can tell if a tree is a future snag if it has running sap, one or more splits in the trunk, dead main limbs, fungi on the bark, or current evidence of animal use such as woodpecker holes.
You can also create snags on your property by removing the top third of the tree and half of the remaining side branches, or leave the top the way it is and remove a majority of the tree’s side branches. Consider doing this with trees that currently create a hazard due to weak wood or disease, trees that are creating too much shade where you want sun, trees with invasive roots threating a drain field or septic tank, a tree in a group that needs thinning out, or a tree in an area where there are currently no snags.
Always hire an expert tree service to handle this work. Many certified arborists with the International Society of Arboriculture specialize in snag creation and maintenance.
It is highly probable that any snag you provide for birds and other wildlife will be used. Even a tree that is partially dead can provide habitat, as long as the tree is large enough in diameter. In addition to providing nesting sites in snags, backyard birders can provide properly built birdhouses or nest boxes that mimic natural cavities and help to increase the availability of nesting habitat.
Check out the online UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Helping Cavity-Nesters in Florida,” for specifications for woodpecker (and other bird) nest boxes.
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